In this re-emergence of the Spider-Man franchise, there were some tremendous collaborations with the new director, Marvel and the crew at Imageworks, Pixomondo and the 15 other vendors. Each of the principals was a long term fan of the franchise and the results show dedication to the brand.
The Amazing Spider-Man is also the first native stereo 3D feature for Sony Pictures Imageworks, who developed a new stereo pipeline and toolset especially for the film. CGSociety spoke to VFX Supervisor Jerome Chen on the afternoon of the cinematic premier of The Amazing Spider-Man.Working with director Marc Webb, Jerome and the visual effects teams created a visual style that naturally blends cutting edge live-action stunt work with CG character animation and seamlessly integrates both into extensive digital environments. Featured characters include a full digital Spider-Man and his nemesis, The Lizard, a daunting nine foot-tall, 600 pound bipedal reptile, the result of Dr. Connor’s self-experimentation with a mutagenic serum.
Imageworks had to have a high level of collaboration because they had such a lot of work to do in VFX and these had such an integral part in the production. The movie itself was constantly evolving. “We were lucky to get two main sequences completed early on in the movie production,” explains Jerome Chen. “One of them is where Spider-Man has to swing down two miles of Seventh Avenue to where the villain is preparing this device. Swinging down there, he then had to scale a 200-storey building. We had the brief a year before release, but needed every single day to produce this.”
Many of the action set-pieces with Spider-Man and The Lizard take place in fully digital environments including the hallways of Mid-Town High School, the sewers beneath the city, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The climactic battle between Spider-Man and the Lizard is set on the rooftop of the Oscorp Building – 135 stories above Manhattan – and is predominantly a digital sequence due to the scope of the battle and the dynamic nature of the fight choreography.
At the same time, there were really complex scenes emerging around this sequence, that required a lot of attention as well. Jerome Chen was spirited in his praise for the crew who all pushed so hard to complete this project, gambling on the hard shots and coming through in the end with a successful product.
Imageworks has a library of buildings from various cities, mostly from the creation of other Spider-Man movies, or a bit of R&D for other productions. But the pre-built buildings aren’t exactly in a plug-and-play format. “Every movie has a different aesthetic, and a different set of requirements in terms of how much detail is required,” explains Chen. “We created a catalogue of 80 to 90 buildings, some of these are from previous Spider-Man movies. These building fronts were devised and prepared for the use during ‘daytime’ shots, while almost all of the city shots in The Amazing Spider-Man take place during the evening.” The previous models are also all done in RenderMan. Imageworks has since transitioned to using Arnold, the inhouse Sony Imageworks renderer, so the texture maps and shaders all had to be re-done for all of the assets. “So we had geometric assets,” he explains. “We had models, but textures had to be changed and the whole surfacing had to be redone.”
As this Spider-Man movie was presenting the buildings at night, the biggest impression people would have is from the windows and lights in individual rooms as they pass by windows. This presented a huge challenge to Jerome Chen and his crew. “Not only the mixtures of geometry in the lit city windows,” add Chen, “ but also the color of the light, there was a mix of different hues in their color palette. Some would have tints towards green cos they used sodium lights. Others were warmer, some were a mix of color. A whole library of different mixes on how each window would look. We had monitors, some TV flicker, all kinds of lift lobby lighting. Some of the artists took HDR photos of their own offices, lounges, kitchens and bedrooms.”
There are cases where the Imageworks crew had to also recreate the ground activity. Traffic moving, some brake lights coming on, CG people walking along, some reacting to the activity in the sky above them. Although it was all great fun to come up with all of this, it was a huge job to make them all happen. “If ‘Spidee’ had to be rendered high enough so people thought he was real, everything around him had be real life-like as well,” add Jerome.
In days gone by, a Spider-Cam set up would have been used. A motion control camera would be hung from a suspension line, hanging from a construction crane on Fifth Avenue in New York. But it would have been prohibitively expensive. The street would have to be closed off. The camera moves would be simple and linear, because there’s not information on how Spider-Man is moving yet. This is basically why they decided to shoot all CG.
Every super-hero story has a nemesis bad guy. Like Peter Parker is to a spider, this guy mixes DNA of a lizard and becomes a nine-feet tall, rather heavy and nasty piece of work. As the actor assumes certain poses and makes certain expressions, Imageworks based its ‘look’ with those of Rhys Ifans, the actor who plays Doctor Connors. “We did high rez scans of the actors playing a library of poses, which we then applied to the CG version of the lizard,” Chen says. “so when the lizard assumes the same sort of expression that Rhys did, there’d be some sort of continuity. We took lots of visual references of different kinds of lizards as well, so we knew how far the appearance could be stretched towards the human. Eventually we decided to try a mix of different lizards. There was a mix also of human skin, since this was a mix of a human and lizard.”
The performance of Rhys Ifans was instrumental in gaining the best animation for his work as the Lizard. CGSociety also spoke to David Schaub, animation supervisor at Imageworks. “Even though Rhys didn’t actually look like the lizard we tried to get a lot of that together by working with his facial expressions and the performance,” explains Schaub. “From there forward it was an artistic call because we couldn’t rely on reference or motion capture. The character was nine feet tall. If we were to MoCap that, it would look like a six foot tall guy in a lizard suit.”
In the fight between the very sleek Spider-Man and the nine foot Lizard, there was that tricky balance between the two forms. Putting those two together into hand to hand combat will bring different physical effects, like how gravity affects each protagonist individually. Mark Webb seems to have taken a few leaves out of the Ridley Scott book by introducing as many practical elements as possible. If they are all digital creations, they run the risk of looking like digital creations. As soon as Webb found we could make the digital Spider-Man emulate perfectly the moves of Andrew Garfield, the shot count spiralled up. Not only for the performances, but adding whole sequences and being able to hit the mark. The rigs used in Maya allowed complete control over musculature and simulations are run on the top of that. Then the skin itself was treated as a cloth material. A bit like Rhys was sitting inside a lizard-skin jacket, which was true to the folds and bunching that happens.
Web in a drain
On set, there was a large padded rope mesh for the actor Andrew Garfield to recline on during the filmed sequence. Afterwards, the VFX crew blacked out this thin trampoline system of wires and replaced it with a CG web, but it took a long time to figure out what would look best. Jerome Chen takes up the story. “We tried a thin fluffy, cob-webby look. It has a silver, barbed, translucent quality to it,” Chen describes. “There’s even a chromatic aberration to it, skipping from red thru to blue. There are people out there who make sculptures out of glue. Sticky, stringy glue that dries and makes the most elaborate structures. We used a lot of these sculptures as reference for the look of the strong fluffy web.” To create the animated web, Imagework animated in Maya. For the effects and particles, smoke and dust, the team used a selection of application including a Houdini system with Maya. Most of the compositing work was in NUKE and the lighting system was the open-source KATANA.
There were 15 vendors for this movie, with Pixomondo doing a huge sequence for The Amazing Spider-Man of the CG bridge and they were using V-Ray as their renderer. The task for Imageworks was creating the technical bridges cos they did all their animation in 3ds Max. NUKE compositing strips then need to have a clear way to be sent between vendors as well.
“There are different kinds of webs seen from different viewpoints in each scene they are in. In the drain ‘hideout’ where there is a long web that has a broader sense of colour gradation going through it,” explains Chen. “Then there are close up webs that required a lot greater detail. We had to reflect a higher level of light from the background through it. There were spots where the web hit something and would be pulled back from it and create something we called the Eiffel Tower, and each iteration of the web required a different lighting and rendering technique.”
Each of these different passes had to be balanced together in the compositing stage. There were multiple passes too: Spec, Refraction, base, diffuse, high frequency, motion blur, and there was a bit of cheat because some blurs would make the web invisible, blowing all the effort by Imageworks.
Strike a pose
Some things Spider-Man does as he pounds around in the skies above Manhattan were full-screen and the Imageworks animators never thought he’d get that close. “This gave our team lots of opportunities to do things we couldn’t do otherwise, like hitting the iconic poses from the comic book,” says Schaub. “Anytime there was debate about what Spider-Man could do at any particular moment, we’d always be referring to the comic books. Spider-Man flies through the city, which would be difficult if it were Andrew or a stunt guy, and it meant we could push it a lot further.”
The finale was also tweeked solidly into a minute of animation which was full of iconic moments. With about a month to go, the team jumped into action to make Spider-Man slingshot down off a crane and swing across a rooftop, and then down an alley which sort of started off being a little like aerial parcour, which David Schaub was also referencing for a lot of the Spider-Man moves. There’s an elegant fluidity in a lot of this movement. Striking one pose and following the inertia from it, allows another pose to be attained. A lot of the swinging action is based off trampeze and ballet and what formed was animation of the hero with the camera chasing him right up close across this landscape. “We managed it by breaking the single shot into four pieces,” explains Schaub. “so that each animator had 25% of the shot. Mark wanted to add a few seconds here and there and we could do that within the context of that piece and then stitch it all back together.”
Thanks for CGSociety and Paul Hellard for this article.